Living it barefoot
The question as to why we humans suffer more and more from posture-related pain is ongoing, but the search for answers is becoming more and more sophisticated too. If we first look at the body from the feet upwards and investigate if the foundation of our alignment, the contact to the ground, has significant bearing.
Going barefoot versus wearing shoes is currently hotly debated, and I wondered about the merits of each myself for a long time before deciding to go for “barefoot shoes”. I now wear them not only most of the time, but always. They help my back, makes me feel much more awake while I am moving and have given my feet and lower leg much more stability.
According to science, this all makes perfectly sense. When we look at the standard shoes in shops, trends show that costumers go more and more for soft cushioning and different forms of heels (both of which are missing in a “barefoot shoe”). The argument seems to be that both cushion and added heel padding reduces impact on the joints, bones, ligaments…. but is this claim really true? Concerns by specialists about raising the heel height over that of the forefoot in the supporting phase of walking will also increase the pronation of the foot, which is a natural inwards movement for shock absorption. Shoe manufacturers have put pronation supports (harder materials in the midsole) in place to counter this. The results of all of this have been shown detrimental, especially for women who wear high heels frequently, through generating bigger internal torques in knee and hips, according to American biomechanics specialist Dr Casey Kerrigan in a study published in the Lancet. She also suggests that these types of footwear might contribute to osteoarthritis in the knee which is one of the leading causes of physical disability in older adults.
Studies have shown that native barefoot walkers have a larger plantar contact area on the foot, which means better contact to the ground overall than those populations who wear shoes. They’ve also observed that the barefoot walkers’ generally flatter initial foot contact allows them to distribute pressure more evenly over the whole foot surface. This flatter foot placement distributes the pressure better over a longer period of time and reduces pressure on the foot, compared to shod populations.
But there are other factors that are valuable to consider when thinking about appropriate footwear. The soles of the foot are full of sensors and very sensitive to pressure and touch and there are also large concentrations of proprioceptors all over the lower leg and foot, muscles and joints. These provide vital information for the brain and help us to securely move through space. By walking in cushioned, thick soled, heeled shoes, we massively reduce the possibility of those proprioceptors to generate information for our vestibular system. This is especially important to consider for older people, since the brain reduces areas which do not get stimulation over time. Logically then, reduced time in footwear may lead to reduced falls.
This all sounds great doesn’t it? Any downsides, you may ask? Yes, there are some considerations, such as if you have any previous injuries. In this case, you might want to get into barefoot walking slowly, since your body will need to adapt to the new circumstances and new walking patterns might mean more pressure on different parts of the body. Conversely, walking barefoot or in barefoot shoes can also reduce loading of the joints in the foot. Listen to your body or start with the supervision of your health care practitioner.
Of course, if you decide to walk literally barefoot you might miss the way shoes protect your feet against infections, bacteria, fungi… and injuries (cuts, splints, etc.), so make sure you clean your feet properly… or invest in some “barefoot shoes”.
My favourite brand for barefoot shoes is Vivobarefoot shoes. They have a wide variety of different models for all sorts of occasions and uses. They are eco-friendly and the sole is very robust and so thin, that you get a lot of stimulation and information. I absolutely love them and I have felt that many minor aches in the back are sorted out quickly through simply going for a walk in them. A big advantage of barefoot shoes is also that you can walk safely on any surface.
 Kerrigan C, Todd M, Riley P: “Osteoarthritis and high heeled shoes”, Lancet May 19, 1998,
 K. D’Aout, T.C. Pataky, D. De Clercq, P. Aerts: “The effects of habitual footware use: foot shape and function in native barefoot wakers”, Footwear Sci, 1(2) (2009), p.81-94
 R. Zipfel, L. R. Berger: “Shod versus unshod: The emergence of foot pathology in modern humans, The foot 17 (2007) , p. 205-213